The town of Milton last week voted to reject a transit-oriented zoning reform package. As a result, the town now finds itself out of compliance with a state law requiring municipalities to enact multifamily zoning around MBTA service areas.

A dozen towns were tasked with creating their own plans to comply with the MBTA Communities Act by Dec. 31, 2023. Milton Town Meeting approved its new plan in December, but ye olde NIMBYs claimed more development is harmful to the suburb and pushed for a referendum at the ballot box. The referendum passed by 759 votes.

The need for additional housing in Massachusetts is well documented. The law’s intention is to work with MBTA communities to support housing development, but it is not without teeth in the event of noncompliance. Gov. Maura Healey and Attorney General Andrea Campbell have warned for months that communities that fail to comply with the MBTA Communities Act will lose state funding.

But if appeals to residents’ better angels go unheard, as seems to be the case, there is a precedent for how this will proceed. We have been here before, every time a Chapter 40B project is proposed in a NIMBY community. Despite endless redesigns, community listening sessions and zoning board meetings, those projects are built – as is required under the law.

Milton cannot lawfully refuse to allow higher density zoning around the Mattapan line. The state law asked municipalities to design their own plans; perhaps if they cannot approve a plan, the state will do it for them. And those reforms are likely to be much more stringent than the town’s original proposal.

The MBTA Communities Act is clear that towns cannot opt out of zoning reform; they can only go around in circles debating how to comply. Town Meeting Members have an opportunity to save face this spring by approving a more ambitious reform plan. The original plan was rather anemic and likely would have resulted in only slow and incremental change – in a town where the median home sale price in 2003 was $925,000.

If voters call for another referendum, so be it – democracy is a messy business. This circle can go on forever, but there will be consequences. Milton could lose $1.7 million in state funding, as well as the ability to receive grants from MassWorks, HousingWorks and Housing Choice. Given how wealthy Milton is, one hopes that stick is strong enough to break the cycle.

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Why Milton’s Vote Ultimately Doesn’t Matter

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min